In Africa, poor oral hygiene is the leading cause of school absenteeism, with children who experience dental pain missing school and performing poorly academically.1 Similarly, untreated oral diseases can cause severe pain and infection, leading to poor productivity and absenteeism among adults in the workplace.2 Despite significant achievements in the state of oral health globally, why is Africa burdened with such persistent oral care issues?
Regrettably, access to oral health solutions and education is low. The majority of Africa’s population has little or no access to proper oral health care, with the few dentists available based in the cities. In Africa, the dentist to population ratio is approximately 1:150000 against about 1:2000 in most industrialised countries.3 In Nigeria alone, there are only 4,125 registered dentists; that’s about 40,000 people to 1 dentist.4 And where there are dental clinics, dental care is expensive and unaffordable for many and usually restricted only to curative services. Insufficient oral care training and education for health workers, who are the people responsible for educating Africa on preventative health care, leads to serious challenges in the pursuit of Africa’s oral health.
Yet, simple and cost-effective measures are available. With a lack of dentists in the region, preventive oral health strategies are crucial for avoiding costly cures. Brushing every day, day and night, with a fluoride toothpaste has been proven to help remove plaque and reduce tooth decay by 50%. It is the basis of good oral hygiene, and together with education about avoiding risk factors like sugar consumption and regular dental check-ups from childhood, brushing every day, day and night, can help maintain optimal oral health into old age.
Knowledge and awareness are critical but they alone cannot create a brushing habit. The change in behaviour needed to brush day and night every day can happen only when it becomes a social norm. This is where the need for strong partnerships comes in. When businesses and NGOs can work alongside government, teachers, midwives and community health workers, we can bring about an enduring change in habits and develop sustainable strategies that are inclusive to the most vulnerable, such as children in rural, hard-to-reach areas, pregnant woman and the elderly.
The collaboration between FDI World Dental Federation and Unilever is an example of how a joint vision can measurably improve oral health on a large scale and change Africans’ lives for the better. Over a decade of cooperation has enabled us to improve the oral health of 4.1 million children and their families in Africa to date. Together we aim to spread the message of good oral health habits and change the oral care behaviour of 25 million children and their families in Africa by 2020.
Last month we celebrated World Oral Health Day across Africa with the theme “Live Mouth Smart – Brush Every Day, Day and Night”. We welcomed representatives from Unilever and FDI during our celebrations in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire – indicating our global commitment to improving and maintaining the African smile. Not only did we celebrate more than a decade of partnership, we reaffirmed the link between oral health and overall health. Oral health is a fundamental component of general health and physical and mental well-being and the basis of a better quality of life. No wonder World Oral Health Day is also World Happiness Day; the two are inherently linked!
Initiatives such as Unilever Signal’s 21-day ‘Brush Every Day, Day & Night’ programme teaches children the importance of good oral care habits by inculcating the habit of twice daily brushing. Implemented in partnership with FDI, this oral health educational programme seeks to empower both children and their parents with the knowledge necessary to free them from oral health concerns. We also introduced our ‘Little Brush, Big Brush’ campaign, a fun and engaging mobile and digital programme with the potential to reach even more families and protect their smiles.
To achieve a healthier Africa, we need to implement preventive oral care and reinforce the message of how oral health affects overall health. We also need to keep in mind that oral hygiene and nutrition are linked and that a poor diet is associated with increased likelihood of oral disease.5 Focussed education programmes can change children’s oral care behaviour and equip community health workers with the knowledge to be champions of oral care. Only by working in partnership can we slowly but surely relieve Africa of its oral care burdens and keep current and future generations of Africans smiling and happy.
*Dr. Patrick Hescot is the President of the FDI World Dental Federation and Dr Myriam Sidibe is the Director for Africa of Unilever Social Mission – Hygiene and Nutrition.
1 Impact of Poor Oral Health on Children’s School Attendance and Performance https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222359/
2 WHO: Prevention is better than treatment http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/93/9/15-020915/en/
3 WHO: Oral health services http://www.who.int/oral_health/action/services/en/
4 Dr. Bode Ijarogbe, President, Nigerian Dental Association
5 Good Oral Health and Diet https://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2012/720692/